Strolling down the hall of the brand new El Centro jail expansion, opened April 2018, Correctional Officer Sergio Romero points out the holding cells near the processing center, the strip search room, and the nursing station. Comprised of 274 beds, the jail is arranged in dormitories instead of the traditional cells, each with a restroom, laundry area, and a 150-foot outdoor exercise space. Every bathroom has modesty panels, so inmates can have some privacy when changing.
At this point, I need to clarify that I’m not actually at the jail, but 600 miles away in a conference hall in Sacramento., attending the American Jail Association's annual conference and jail expo. The jail I’m looking at is a virtual reality construction, used by Vanir Construction Management to aid in the building of the jail. In front of me, officer Romero is encased in an Oculus Rift, his movements in the jail broadcast onto a large screen above his head. It might seem like another industry is jumping on the VR bandwagon, but in this case, it has already proved surprisingly useful.
“We had walked into this one station [in virtual reality] and it became pretty clear the window design wouldn't work,” says Bob Fletcher, Vice President, Business Development at Vanir Construction Management. “This is one of the locations in the facility where women and men [are together] so the line of sight was important.” In this case, the team discovered that inmates would be able to view other cells, due to the angles of the corridors. “We made some design changes that would have [been extremely costly if spotted at a later stage].”
It’s no secret that the prison and jail system in America is ripe for a rehaul. It’s beset by staff shortages, overcrowding, and aging, unhygienic facilities. “17% of jails operating at above 100% capacity,” said one announcer - met with a sea of nods (and backed up by the BJS 2016 report).
California has the second biggest corrections system in the states and is currently housing around 70,000 people in its jails (as of July 2016 data) and 128,998 in California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation units (as of April 2018 data). Since 2007, California has allocated $2.2 billion to finance jail construction and refurbishment, a number that’s been added to in subsequent years — $250 million in 2016, $270 million in 2017. The number doesn’t stop here. In 2018, ground broke on the construction of a $101.8 million jail construction in Fresno, eta: 2020, and around $3.5 billion is being raised to build a new jail in LA County.
Over 20 counties have some form of jail construction or expansion in the works, the regions making use of this much-needed jackpot. Part of the reason for this building boom is a 2011 ruling by the Supreme court ordering California to lower its prison population by 40,000 — meaning a shift from prisons to jails, and from jails to rehab clinics.
( EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
The money invested in this has created an unprecedented opportunity to redesign jails from the ground up, to build places of rehabilitation, not punishment. It’s a chance to start afresh and that means looking at jail design with fresh eyes. Virtual reality is just one of the tools officials are using to design the future of incarceration.
Now we’re traversing the halls again, as Romero slowly paces the floor plan. “This building is state of the art,” he says. It should be — it cost around $33 million. One blip; when Romero pointed at the prison gates we were teleported outside the jail. “That’s not how it works in real life,” jokes Fletcher. At this point, I’d like to note how impressive Romero’s handling of the system was; many people get disorientated or nauseous when in the headset for a while, and his first time playing with it was on a stage full of people. Here, the layout mimicked the reality so accurately that he had no trouble navigating.
The facility is constructed on a new trend in jail design, one that allows for observation of all inmates simultaneously. Whereas old-school jails are rectangular, with guards needed to patrol up and down the halls (meaning that some inmates are always out of view) this new way of thinking is structured around ‘direct supervision’ pods, where the guard sits at the center, and the inmates are arrayed around him. Basically, prison’s version of Shakespeare’s Globe.
Not everyone in the audience was enthralled with the visualization. One corrections officer pointed out that the wide mezzanine might provide ample space for hanging — or for throwing someone off. She objected to the pat response, “that shouldn't happen if everyone does their job.” It wasn't realistic, she argued, to expect an officer to hotfoot it from the base to upstairs, when they were dealing with everyone else as well. “That’s why getting more people inside these models is so invaluable, as the level of engagement is so impactful,” said Fletcher.
“Virtual reality creates a virtual world to revolutionize how people visualize the construction process,” says Daniel Shirkey, director of technology and operations at Balfour Beatty. Balfour Beatty, who teamed up with Vanir Construction Management and Imperial County Sheriff's Office for this project, is a big believer in the benefits of virtual reality in construction, going so far as to implement a company-wide VR hack day in 2016. “Builders are awakening to the power of VR and other leading-edge technologies. And in some cases, thanks to their own children!” wrote Mark Konchar, Balfour Beatty Senior VP on their website. “For those asking ‘Why would I risk doing it any different?’ I would pose this question; do we want to be laggards or leaders?”
Virtual Reality’s love affair with the construction industry has been growing for some time; in 2013 McCarthy Building Companies placed doctors and nurses in VR headsets to guide the design of the Martin Luther King Multi-Service Ambulatory Care Center in Los Angeles, and in New York, Brayjam Construction Inc. regularly uses VR plans to scope out properties before they get built. Applying these skills to the prison industrial complex makes a lot of sense.
However, critics argue that the money being invested in jail construction could be better used in rehabilitation or education program and that investment in the jail system is taking precedence — and profit — over cutting down on its denizens. While downsizing prisons (and prisoners) is clearly of huge importance, making sure that those behind bars live in a cleaner, healthier conditions are beneficial as well; for the inmates, the guards and society at large.
VR in prison in general
While construction is a very physical demonstration of how virtual reality fits into the prison system, it’s being utilized in a number of different ways in jail. During the American Jail Association conference, I was shown a demonstration by GTL corrections of VR training they are offering to inmates. Inside a Samsung Galaxy Gear VR headset, I watched some training lessons for wannabe car mechanics.
The interaction kept you engaged (I have no desire to be a mechanic) and you could see how it would add a different facet to training. They will initially trial this with a mechanic and cosmetology training. “It’s brand new We don’t have it any facilities yet,” says the friendly GTL spokesperson who demoed this for me. “Instead of giving them tools (like wrenches/hammers) you can put the headset on, and look around, and it just takes you step by step.”
Here are some other use case scenarios for VR in prisons and jails.
For readjustment: In Illinois, University of Illinois graphics students designed VR experiences to help released inmates adjust to the world — often a large culture shock, considering how fast technology has changed. Here, they get to practice simple scenarios like crossing the street or getting gas while safe in a headset, before doing it in real life.
Virtual Rehabilitation: Virtual Rehab, a startup launched in 2017, aims to reduce repeat offenders through virtual reality rehabilitation services. So far, they’re still in beta mode, with no word on how many institutions they’re working with.
Reducing Recidivism: The Alaska Department of Corrections is hoping the right VR training can cut down on their 66.6 recidivism rate. In partnership with the National Mental Health Innovation Center, they’re taking inmates through real-life scenarios such as job interviews, all while wearing a VR headset. Officers also believe it might help on-the-job training for recruits.
Overall, virtual reality isn't some kind of magic wand that can be waved over the jail population and change them instantly, but it does offer more — both in the terms of construction design and rehabilitation and education care — than is currently standard. It’s great that dollars are being invested in systems that can, ideally, promote long-term change and serve some of our most vulnerable populations.